Disengagement: Recognizing and Responding to a Recurring Challenge

Consider the whole notion of disengagement as fluid territory on an active continuum.

We have known for quite some time that on average 30% of the workforce at large can be accurately characterized as engaged. Those in that category can and do migrate to the right depending upon the reality of their worlds. But they are effectively replaced by others who have migrated to the left for one reason or another.

As for disengagement, Gallup has confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that there are two kinds:

  1. Actively disengaged: (20%) Recognizing employees in this category usually doesn’t take much exploratory acumen or management experience. They tend to let you know right where they are on our continuum every chance they get!
  2. Not engaged: (50%) Recognizing employees represented by this percentage requires a leader who is not only paying attention to important cues, but also willing to initiate and invest in the relationship to both understand and investigate root causes. Here are a few symptoms those leaders frequently encounter from the middle of the spectrum:
    • Limited initiative: Employees that have figured out a way to deliver at or around expectation, but almost seem to avoid the opportunity to step beyond, take their performance to the next level or demonstrate curiosity
    • Silence: When decisions of consequence are imminent and input on those decisions is solicited, these employees can become creatively evasive (i.e., profess commitment to the cause while simultaneously withholding the value of their perspective)
    • Indifferent about learning: Joined at the hip with the description of limited initiative, an employee who is not engaged will demonstrate ambivalence when opportunities to volunteer for or participate in training arise

When you think about all of this in the context of your own work experience, the dynamic nature of the continuum can indeed become more evident. For instance, when most of us are in a set of circumstances where we are learning something new that is both challenging and intrinsically rewarding, engagement is rarely an issue. When we have mastered those tasks, and they become routine, it is both predictable and normal for engagement to temporarily and periodically fade, fall off or slip. In Situational Leadership® language, this is referred to as “regression.” If regression is not addressed, it is also predictable that a lack of engagement can morph into active disengagement. When it comes right down to it, there are two people that can effectively address that dynamic: the employee and the manager of that employee.


With as much time as all of us spend at work it’s hard to explain why more of us don’t take increasing amounts of ownership in our own engagement. In the spirit of speaking truth to power, there are potential risks to following this path. But there are also potential benefits of significance. Here are three commonsense suggestions that by no means are common practice:

  1. Step back: Take some time away from your job to thoughtfully consider what’s different or what’s missing. Start with how you feel and get to the root cause(s) of why you feel that way.
  2. Create a plan: What needs to change for you to start feeling better and for your engagement to improve in specific and actionable terms? Of significance importance: The plan can’t just be about you and you alone! How does your plan help others on your team? Your manager? Productivity?
  3. Lead! Initiate with your manager and share your plan. At an absolute minimum, your manager will be more aware of where you are and why. And you will be more aware of how much your manager cares about you and your circumstances.


If you are a manager, hopefully, nobody needs to tell you about the importance of employee engagement. Generally speaking, employees that give discretionary effort learn quicker, produce more and stick around longer. Here are two ongoing practices managers can employ to respond to waning engagement:

  1. Measure engagement: Formally, informally and relentlessly! Find out where people are on the engagement continuum. Distribute surveys that protect anonymity and provide baseline metrics. Incorporate poll questions into your weekly one-on-ones:
    1. “On a scale of 1- 5, where is your engagement this week and why?”

Again, at a minimum, measuring, discussing and acting on implementable suggestions will send the message that you sincerely care (which is at least half the battle!).

  1. Make it Personal: In his book, “The Heart of Business,” Hubert Joly describes the role of a manager as follows:
    1. Understanding the noble purpose of the business (What value does the company provide?)
    2. Discovering the personal goals and aspirations of the people that work for you (What are their dreams?)
    3. Connecting the two (How can you help the people that work for you fulfill their dreams by helping to achieve the company’s noble purpose?)

All of that is to say that disengagement isn’t going anywhere and will never simply fix itself. Like most relationships, it boils down to two people that care enough to have candid discussions about root causes and realistic remedies.